The Hebrew and Greek that is translated as “(today I have) begotten you (or: have become your father)” or similar in English is translated as “I have presented you before all people so that they might know that you are my own Son” in Teutila Cuicatec, as “you I have appointed now that you rule” in Tenango Otomi, and as “today I have given you work” in Lalana Chinantec. (Source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
In Garifuna the second person singular pronoun (“you” in English) has two forms. One is used in women’s speech and one in men’s speech. In the Garifuna Bible the form used in men’s speech is typically used, except when it’s clear that a woman is quoted or in Psalms where the women on the translation team insisted that the form used in women’s speech (buguya) would be used throughout the whole book.
Ronald Ross (in Omanson 2001, p. 375f.) tells the story: “Throughout most of the translation, [the distinctions between the different forms of the pronouns] presented no problem. Whenever the speaker in the text was perceived as a man, the male speech forms were used; and when a woman was speaking, the female speech forms were used. True, the women members of the translation team did object on occasion to the use of the male forms when the author (and narrator) of a book was unknown and the men translators had used the male speech forms as the default. Serious discord arose, however, during the translation of the Psalms because of their highly devotional nature and because throughout the book the psalmist is addressing God. The male translators had, predictably, used the male form to address God, and the male form to refer to the psalmist, even though women speakers of Garifuna never use those forms to address anyone. The women contended that they could not as women read the Psalms meaningfully if God and the psalmist were always addressed as if the readers were men. The men, of course, turned the argument around, claiming that neither could they read the Psalms comfortably if the reader was assumed to be a woman.
“Initially there seemed to be no way out of this impasse. However a solution was found in the ongoing evolution of the language. There is a strong propensity for male speech and female speech to merge in favor of the latter, so the few remaining male forms are gradually dying out. Moreover, male children learn female speech from their mothers and only shift to the male speech forms when they reach adolescence to avoid sounding effeminate. However they use the female form buguya when addressing their parents throughout life. So the women wielded two arguments: First, the general development of the language favored the increasing use of the female forms. Secondly, the female forms are less strange to the men than the male forms are to the women, because the men habitually use them during early childhood and continue to use them to address their parents even in adulthood. Therefore, the female pronominal forms prevailed and were adopted throughout the book of Psalms, though the male forms remained the default forms in the rest of the translation.”
Following are a number of back-translations of Acts 13:33:
- Uma: “‘So, relatives, at this time, we (excl.) are the ones announce to you this Good News. What God promised long ago to our ancestors he has fulfilled to us their descendants at this time in his making Yesus live again from death. Like is written in the second Song of Daud: ‘You (sing.) are my Child, on this day I consider-you (sing.)-my-Child.'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “That promise/covenant has been fulfilled to us (incl.) their descendants, in that he has made Isa alive again. It is written in the holy-book Jabur in the second song, God says there, ‘You are my Child/Son. This day I will make known that I am your Father.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “and we, their descendants, he has done here for us what he promised them because he raised Jesus from the dead. For there was that which God said there in the book of Psalms which was written long ago, there in the second Psalm, ‘You are my son and today I show that I am your Father.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “that is what has-been-fulfilled-to us their descendants, because his making-Jesus -alive was in our time. This furthermore is what what-is-written in the second Salmo is telling-about, saying, ‘You (singular) are my child. Today I will show that I am your (singular) Father.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “He really has now fulfilled it in this our time, we who are their descendants. For he set up Jesus as our Savior. This is what was meant by what was written in what is called The Songs, the second of which says, ‘Today, I am clearly-indicating that you are my Son. I am your Father.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself” in many English Bible translations when referring to the persons of the Trinity with the capitalized “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).
Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility (click or tap here to read more):
In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.
While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, many other Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. (Source: Zetzsche)
Early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970) also used 祂 to refer to “God.” Kramers points out: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”
Source: R. P. Kramers in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.
In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):
In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.
Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”
In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)
Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”
In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)
The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “kind,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.
Translator: Simon Wong